Indian Tourista, and an Overnight Train

Seeking entertainment our last night in Jaipur, our driver took us to Chokhi Dhani, the Dolly Wood of India where Indians watch folk dancing, ride camels and elephants, and even bowl.


Something I ate (though we only ate at the buffet they sent us to) made me really ill. I was so sick josh packed for me this morning and got our hotel to give us an extra hour before checkout.
The hotel let us sit in the lobby another hour before the driver came to take us to the train station.
I look so bad, sweating, pale, stooped posture and shallow of breath, that people keep asking if I am sick. I know dry toast is the only acceptable food, and even that in minuscule quantities, but after the second local says something about the medicinal effects of banana lassi I think maybe they knew something about being sick in India that is different from my mom’s unquestionable knowledge of being sick in the states, and drink a few ounces of it.

The driver I can tell feels terrible for me; I can’t sit still or sit up straight. Whatever is in me causes intense pangs in my stomach and cramping in muscles all over my body.
We get to the train station, and when josh and the driver finally stop walking I sit down on the dirty ground (there are dirtier grounds in India, and even if I cared I simply cannot go on standing). But it’s not the right platform so I get up and continue following them, they hauling all my stuff and me breathlessly putting one foot in front of the other, wondering if listening to some George Straight on my iPod would give me fortitude or make me weep. I want my mom. I want my dog.
As soon as josh and the driver stop at the next platform I sit down, but the driver insists I get up to take the seat he’s asked an Indian man to give me. I do my best to make the namaste bow of thanks to him. I am dizzy and nauseas and I think everyone is staring at the white girl panting and sweating.
I tug at Josh’s shirt, interrupting his conversation with the driver. I tug harder, scared. “The sink” as he points to the left “or over the edge”. He helps me over our backpacks to a trash can, and as I puke the medicinal banana lassi into the trash can, a train station of Indians staring at me, he assures me that I am strong, and that, contrary to my protests, I can do this.
When my stomach has stopped reeling I follow him to the train, and we find our four-berth air conditioned sleeper class cabin. By 14:00 the antibiotic has abated the worst of the pangs and aches, and we sleep, along with our companions, some Hindu-Muslims who insisted we not drink whiskey when we entered the cabin. The train is fairly comfortable, clean.
The site of curry-stained paper bowls littered in the train station make me nauseas. The smell of strongly spiced food incites my gag reflex. I loved Indian food so much, and now all I want is mrs bairds, no butter no jam please.
Note to travelers: stick with the antibiotics and toast; lassi doesn’t work on foreigners 🙂

 

Trip to the Krishna Temple and sad Update: Amarillo is a Scam

The morning after meeting Amarillo we woke at 7am to feed the cows before morning temple, for luck. After sufficient difficulty finding the temple we gave up on the cows and decided to follow the throngs of people entering the Hindu service.

India is impressively efficient with security: they scan the millions of people riding the metro, entering the monuments and museums each day with much more grace than the American TSA musters within the states each day. The same is true of the temple: you must walk through a metal detector, and if you have a mac air or iPhone in your bag you are easily shuffled to the bag check (if as few Americans carried such devices as Indian Hindus attending morning temple, TSA bag check would surely be more efficient too).

The service was much like most religious ones: people sang traditional songs, congregated, greeted one another, bowed their heads and gave each other a sugary food, bringing good karma. They marched circles around the statue of Krishna or Shiva (7, 11, 21, 31 to 101 times; even numbers are bad!). They raised their hands and sang, their volume increasing as the curtains finally lifted to reveal the Hindu god Shiva; Josh said it was like witnessing some very old tribal mystic ceremony. As quickly as it began, it was over, and the worshipers began their exodus, save those last few with more rounds to make around the shrine, depending on the gravity of their wish or blessing.

On our way from temple to market we saw a merchant with food very similar to that we saw being distributed and eaten at the temple (a doughnut-hole looking food). Through broken English he finally understood that we were asking if this was the food of the temple, and he gave us some, explaining that sharing it was good luck.  A few meters later we entered a shop that had a quilt we had been wanting. Less than 60 seconds after we entered the man who had bestowed the temple doughnut upon us entered. He, like Amarillo, was a charming multi-lingual, also offering us tea and seamlessly engaging us in compelling philosophical and cultural discussions. We left 40 minutes later with the quilt.

Within 10 minutes of picking us up later that afternoon our driver told us that people like Amarillo and doughnut-man and a handful of others that we had met over the days – charming multi-linguals working the markets – are a known part of the system. These men charm up the foreigners with tea and fulfilling conversations in their native tongue, telling the foreigners how glad he is that they have come to visit India, of the important things across cultures like family, the whole time building trust and rapport and then delivers the unwitting dupe to the next shop (always his brother’s or father’s shop), where he overpays 50-200% and the charming multi-lingual tourist bait takes his commission (could be up to 40% like the tour guides) and moves on to the next fish.

We have spent 9 days taking turns with optimism and pessimism; knowing we were traveling to a totally foreign land and tolerating the misuse that begets, and then being beyond toleration. Josh tonight is the more sanguine between us; I’m slightly reeling at the realization that every conversation that we’ve had that we thought was a “cultural experience” was someone trying to scam us. And I’m definitely done bending over backwards to make sure I don’t offend the locals.

Amarillo, Texas in Jaipur, Rajasthan

Meandering the Tripolia market of Jaipur tonight we met an Indian wearing a large, rodeo-style Levi’s belt buckle and a cowboy boot pin in his hat reading “Amarillo Texas”. He invited us to his shop for tea, and he was impressively conversant in Spanish, Italian and French (the only languages we were able to vouch for) and said he knew enough Chinese to get the tourists to buy his jewelry.

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He was quite charismatic, said he prefers selling his jewels and meeting the tourists to the cush government job he could have, and claimed to have had an Italian girlfriend for the 22 days he spend in Italy and currently his Mexican girlfriend lives with him in India.

He confirmed some prices of goods for us that he doesn’t sell, though he sent us to a neighboring store for these goods, so as ever, we remain wary. Josh was 100% successful in bargaining today, getting our elephant photos for 100 rupees instead of the original 200, two oranges for 10 instead of 20, and a blanket for 500 instead of 18,500. We are at least gaining a good foundation of the mark-up here, and confidence that as we’re walking out the door every merchant has caved to giving us what Josh calls “Indian prices”.

Ganesh is finally looking out for us. May he remove obstacles in your day today too.

-j&d

ganesha: Remover of Obstacles

Taj Mahal

Today was the quintessential tourist day: the Taj Mahal! Josh in all his newfound glory woke up early to ride the bike at the gym again (this stranger has worked out in the hotel gyms 5 times since we arrived, his first time solo in a gym in 10 years). We were our habitual 30 minutes late to meet the tour guide, then a quick drive to the Taj Mahal.

As with all monuments in India, foreigners pay a high premium for entrance (eg, 750 rupees ($15) for the “High Value Ticket” vs 20 ($0.20) for the locals braving the the heat in long lines). Josh and I both appreciate this as an effective mechanism to give the impoverished native population access to the wonders of their heritage, while giving the foreigners extra incentive to fund it.

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The Taj Mahal was Shah Jahan‘s attempt to bring heaven to Earth; he chose special translucent white Indian marble because it is non-porous – enduring, and the stone of God was white in the scriptures. It follows the compulsory rule of Muslim mausoleum, with four quadrants split by the four rivers of honey, milk, wine and water. My immediate experience was white, airy lifting of stone in the morning sun; the engineering of the structure remains a mystery, with unparalleled symmetry in design and optical illusions of perspective considered in the angles of every minarets, which are tilted outwards 15 degrees to give the impression of being perfectly vertical to the human eye from afar.  Even the font used in the inscriptions grows in size as it ascends the front of the tomb to give the illusion of being the same size from top to bottom. It took 20,000 imported persian artisans years to build this edifice to God.  There are several stories that circulate regarding Shah Jahan‘s motivation in constructing the Taj; the abounding story is that it is a tomb for his beloved wife, who passed after giving birth to their 14th child in 16 years. Our guide’s own hypothesis, which we find more compelling than the Bollywood love story, is that the Shah could not have organized the logistical feat of bringing the tons of marble the hundred kilometers distance, and tens of thousands of artisans and architects from far away lands, in one year after her death. Yet construction began on this behemoth within the year. Thus our guide believes Jahan had planned the tomb several years before in honor of his own death, as was the custom, tradition and obligation of the great Mogul Kings. Though the Brits insisted on romanticizing the history, and the Indians perpetuate the love story with musical productions for the tourists to see, we are inclined to agree with the evidence.

As for the inside of the Taj, there is not much open to the public – you flow with the sea of humanity down the halls of the mosque and out of the exit. Just as there is a comfort and peace in viewing the front of the Taj in the morning sun, it instills a sense of respite upon entering after standing in line in the north Indian sun: the smooth, cold-to-the-touch marble, as you walk barefoot through the mosque, as shoes are forbidden.

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Our guide also confirmed that the Indians wanting to take our photos and shake our hands are not scammers, but Indian tourists who come from places where there are no fair-skinned people; we will be more understanding of their curiosity.

btw, the picture of us “holding up” the Taj is apparently required for couples.

may you have the chance to visit and hold your own Taj Mahal

-j&d

Poop … and how to get a prepaid sim card in India in under 10 hours

It began with cute straw huts strewn throughout the fields on our drive from Delhi to Agra. At first we thought maybe the local farmers lived in the huts.  Upon closer inspection some of these huts contained strange brown round discs. Over the past two days the piles of brown discs pop up in more places – on carts, stacked in geometric piles in people’s front yards, as tile on rooftops and in orderly lines up and down the roads. Finally it dawned on us … cow poop!  Good ole fashioned manure.  It is everywhere.  We are not sure if the herders sell it or if it is free for the plundering for those who “need” it.  Ram says it is used for cooking, we are thinking perhaps as fuel for the cook fires, rather than a local spice.

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Regardless, the more piles of poop we see, in more places and more shapes, the more photos Josh takes.  I guess no matter how old he is, poop is still funny.

… and the sim card. After four days, three visits to the phone store, and help from a tour guide and a driver, we finally stumbled upon the answer to getting prepaid sim cards here. While approval of your passport at a store is long and complicated, they can verify your passport information and issue the sim card immediately at the airport … things we wish we’d known.

Agra: Poverty, Monkeys, Sticks & Schemes

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Today we drove from Delhi to Agra, witnessing large continuous spans of population, as well as stretches of agrarian countryside. In the populated spans the disorganized movement of humans, motor bikes, rickshaws, cars and horns never ends, punctuated by smaller or larger markets, all resembling a history way older than the USA. In the countryside the scenes reminded me of photos from Africa: women carrying large burdens on their heads, the brightly colored saris far-off in the field, men toiling on the dusty road side with rudimentary tools. In the villages and towns beautiful cows relax in the yards or saunter calmly across streets; in the countryside the cows appear to have a less luxurious existence, hauling carts of stones and large quantities of sticks.

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I kept wondering why there were so many of these primitive-looking sticks. Finally as we drove through one village I realized that these bent, unstable-looking objects are the backbone of most structures in the towns: they prop up the tarps that cover the dirt-floor patios in front of merchant shops; they form the precarious scaffolding and ladders for building construction.

For lunch we stopped at a roadside restaurant, where again a local requested to take our photo, and we paid a young boy with two rhesus macaques to let us take a photo with him.

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Driving through the center of Agra was our first immersion into the deep pockets of poverty. Children – toddlers – pick through piles of trash, men in ragged clothing sleep in the streets in exhausted postures, inured to the honking and bustling around them. I kept thinking that an American baby would be screaming if exposed to these loud, unceasing sounds, as we watched women in saris with calm babies on their hips jostled by the crowds. It did not look like a place where children went to school, but our driver Ram informed us that even in these shanti towns the government provides education, and further incentivizes the girls to stay in school by offering each a bicycle if they remain in school after 9th grade.

Our driver implored us not to leave our hotel, begging us to call him should we need to leave for any reason, and after driving through what must lamentably be called slums, we were quite inclined to comply. Tourists are instructed not to give to the beggars, that to do so is to support the mob, which indentures children by providing shark loans to the country people seeking a future in the city, and then taking a cut of the money the begging children earn on the streets to repay the loans. In the safety of our hotel, we went to dinner, where they charge trapped tourists $21 for a buffet of Luby’s-quality food. In an odd way it struck me as a perverse inversion of the mob-beggar scheme, with hotels availing themselves of the entrapment of wealthy foreigners. Hence, my determination to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast and eat anywhere but the hotels tonight.

We have tried to capture the sites of the people, the awe of observing what the human body and spirit can subsist in, but it is awkward and difficult. Below are pictures of us in the halls of Sikandra – tomb of Akbar the Great, beloved king of India, the first monument we saw in Agra. Will post of Akbar soon – he is a book unto himself, the greatest king of India, actively trying to bring together Hindus and Persians in visionary and inspiring ways.

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Peace from Agra.

–j&d

btw: We will post later about the Taj Mahal. The photo above was merely our first visit, in the evening when we walked through the groves to view the back of the site at sunset. The better part of a day was spent there the following day, and it deserves its own post.

Variegated Markets of Delhi: Chandni Chowk, Connaught & Khan

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There are many things I did not have the chance to write about in Delhi, but we have moved on to Agra today and it is another world of equally pungent experiences (pungent in that they are strong and unique and emotional in the way of a smell), so I must wrap up the most memorable tidbits in this last post.

We returned to the Chandni Chowk market yesterday, it being the place most full of the intense, completely foreign vivacity that we hoped for in embarking on this trip. It is the largest spice market in Asia, where two gringos can mingle safely into the wild, dense throng of humanity. It is a labyrinth of alleys and stores, where merchants still use traditional scales with iron weights and the goods sold are those that have existed since the market’s beginning 350 years ago – foods and clothing, lacking products that remind you that it is the digital or even industrial age.

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 In this market goods can be had cheaply, but all have price tags, and bargaining is not a part of this culture. We purchased five articles of clothing, including my amazing 250 rupee ($5) sandals, all for 20% of the price of the four items we purchased at the government-subsidized shop into which our tour guide hustled us the day before. My biggest regret yet on this trip is that I didn’t buy more of these 250 rupee shoes – they are cuter and more comfortable than most $40 American sandals, though time will tell if they fall apart in a week.

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We rode the metro to the market, as cars cannot pass in the crowded narrow streets around the market, and found them to be not terribly worse than a rush-hour subway in NYC. Purchasing the ticket back, however, took half an hour, as we had the misfortune of choosing a line of mostly women, and people kept cutting into line in front of the women (this did not appear to happen to the men).

Our prepaid phone card: another poor experience with our tour guide – he had not properly discussed the registration of our sim card with Vodafone, so we returned back to Connaught Market with our driver Ram, who spent much time speaking in heated if polite Hindi to whomever on the other side of the phone approves these things … 24 hours later, here’s to still hoping that we have a phone tomorrow.

Dinner is not served in restaurants here until 7pm, and as we were hungry and tired, we returned to the upscale Kahn market for a bite to eat. Josh partook of the guide book-recommended kabob, and I ordered Afghani chicken. It was the best chicken I have ever had, tender like brisket with a roasty flavor (not being a big meat eater, I have limited vocabulary for this experience). I had to inhibit my gag reflex – I do not take well to bones in my food; I ordered it because it was Afghani, not realizing it was going to be just a chicken, but every bite was worth the effort, and I’m glad I did not know it had bones. Afterwards we went to a rooftop wifi café, another simply peaceful and enjoyable night.